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A man holds up a pint of a bière de garde.

France is famed for its wine, bread, charcuterie, and, as you well know, cheese. But beer? Unless you savor light lagers such as Kronenbourg 1664, France has few indigenous brews worth sampling. But there’s one notable exception, found in northern France’s Nord-Pas de Calais region, which abuts the English Channel, the North Sea, and, most critically, beer-mad Belgium.

In the border-straddling land known as French Flanders, local brewers specialize in strong, rustic farmhouse ales dubbed bières de garde, meaning “beers for keeping.” (Traditionally, bières de garde were brewed in early spring and kept in chilly cellars for sipping through the warmer summer months; they’re now made year-round.) Unlike narrowly defined styles such as the Czech Pilsner or German Kölsch, bière de garde offers “lots of freedom,” says Matt Brophy, the brewmaster at Maryland’s Flying Dog. Like the related farmhouse-style saisons of Belgium, “you can use bière de garde as a platform for artistic expression.”

The brewing floor of Brasserie St Sylvestre

Stylistically speaking, bières de garde register a fairly strong 6 to 8 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). The hues of the brew can range from blond to light brown to rich amber, with a sweet aroma displaying a musty complexity, fruit, and perhaps spicy, herbal bitterness, too. The rich, medium bodied beer typically drinks smooth, with a lively carbonation and malt-forward flavor accompanied by a balanced toasty or caramel sweetness.

Though northern France’s brewing industry was decimated during World Wars I and II, numerous traditional bières de garde endure today. La Brasserie de St Sylvestre uses locally roasted malts and regional hops to make the gently sweet, funky, and bitter 3 Monts, while Brasserie Castelain’s Blond Bière de Garde has a beguiling fruity bouquet. American craft brewers have taken to the style, too, with terrific examples that include Two Brothers’ Domaine DuPage, Lost Abbey’s Avant Garde, and Flying Dog’s spring seasonal Garde Dog—“It’s light, refreshing, and still has a good degree of complexity,” Brophy says. “It’s not the expected spring beer.”

When deciding upon a cheese pairing, start out with a soft-ripened Brie. Not only is the cow’s milk cheese a perfect encapsulation of spring’s soft, milky rebirth, but its rich creaminess ably complements the sturdy farmhouse brew. If you can find it, try France’s earthy, excellent Brie de Meaux, California’s silky Rouge et Noir Triple Crème Brie, or, from Texas, Brazos Valley Cheese’s figleaf-wrapped Eden. One taste of that alongside a bière de garde and you’ll be in paradise, too.

Bières de Garde

Two Brothers Domaine DuPage French-Style Country Ale

    Once upon a time, brothers Jim and Jason Ebel—the Chicago-area brewery’s titular siblings—lived in France. They were smitten by bières de garde, which later inspired Domaine DuPage. The amber-hued brew offers a bouquet of sweet caramel and a touch of toast, which follows through on the palate. A light smack of hop bitterness seals the smooth, malty deal.

Flying Dog Garde Dog

    To create this spring seasonal, the Maryland brewers employed a saison yeast strain and plenty of grassy Strisselspalt hops, a singular French variety. The cloudy, unfiltered result decants from the bottle an intense straw-gold, packing a nice spicy bite and an appealing earthy character. It drinks light and refreshing.

Lost Abbey Avant Garde

    This California-crafted beer pours a gorgeous gold, capped by a fat, pillowy head. On the nose expect bread mixed with apricots and tropical fruit, while the flavors tiptoe from toast to hay and biscuits; there’s also some herbal, floral bitterness. The light body and energetic bubbles make Avant Garde a crisp sipper.

Brasserie Castelain Blond Bière de Garde

    In addition to being one of France’s few independent artisanal breweries, Castelain is helmed by Annick Castelain—the granddaughter of the brewery’s founder. Under her stewardship Castelain crafts winning rustic ales, including this elegant champagne-corked bière de garde. It’s a gorgeous gold, packing a sweet, fruity perfume, herbal complexity, and bitterness as surprising as it is appealing.

La Brasserie de St Sylvestre 3 Monts

    St Sylvestre relies on locally grown hops and roasted malts to fashion its lagers and ales. My favorite is this straw-gold tour de force that boasts fruity aromas backed by bread, cloves, and a bit of barnyard funk. This bière de garde is vigorously carbonated, with flavors of apples and pears, an earthy bitterness, and a honeyed sweetness.

Joshua M. Bernstein

Joshua M. Bernstein is the author of The Complete Beer Course (Sterling Epicure, $24.95). You can read more of his writing on his website: http://joshuambernstein.com/


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Brasserie St Sylvestre